In case you haven’t noticed, the tide has turned for the Illinois Fighting Illini defense. Illinois’ four-game winning streak has been aided by a defense that has stiffened up in the second half of games against the Wisconsin Badgers and Michigan State Spartans. This is a team effort because an opposing offense is always going to try and run the offense away from any especially good players on the defense. However, that’s a little more difficult when the front and center of the defense is an immovable boulder. There’s a reason placing a stone front and center is such a universal tactic in curling strategy: it takes away the shortest path to scoring points and forces more difficult plays to be made. For this team, Jamal Milan is that boulder.
This article’s photo is of Milan’s emotional reaction to the greatest comeback in Illini history, which guaranteed the redshirt-senior would see his first bowl game. Jamal certainly deserved this moment as a young man who remained steadfast through turmoil, upheaval and brutal stretches of losing to become the best player on this team.
I’m pulling no punches here: I’ve been beating the drum for Milan for a while now, and I’m ready to say he’s not just our best player, but the best defensive tackle in the conference. If you look just at stats, he’s tops in the conference with 8.5 tackles for loss through 10 games. These make up a huge percentage of his 29 overall tackles. Michigan State’s Mike Panasiuk has matched his number of TFLs, but has done so alongside the highly-regarded Raequan Williams as well as star DE Kenny Willekes as well as his own brother Jacub, a good DE in his own right. This is to say nothing of the traditionally-aggressive defense MSU plays, compared to Illinois’ tendency to put all of the responsibility for making pressure on the front four.
Milan has been the constant alongside a rotating cast of DT that have been ravaged by injury, especially Jamal Woods. Kenyon Jackson, Tymir Oliver and Calvin Avery have also missed time for various reasons, and the less said about Lere Oladipo the better. Bobby Roundtree was tragically lost to a freak accident, and the DE play has been inconsistent at best even with Oluwole Betiku on the field. Betiku has missed most of the last four games, exiting the Wisconsin game and not yet returning. Through it all, Milan has been the anchor in the middle.
It’s not just what he does on the stat sheet. If anything, the stat sheet is the least important contribution. The mighty Wisconsin Badgers were unable to push the middle of the Illinois defensive line back on a regular basis thanks to Milan’s efforts. Even when Illinois has been gashed by running plays this season, it hasn’t been because the interior of the line was pushed back. He absolutely devastated Purdue for four TFL’s, and his repeated abuse of Michigan State’s backup center was key in holding the Spartans to three points in the third quarter, enabling the late comeback. Think back to all the red zone and goal line stops the Illini have had this year, even in what seemed like garbage time. They take a lot of pride in holding that line, and they’re led by Jamal Milan.
Milan’s emergence as an anchor has been a long time coming, but it’s finally showing this season. His late decision to sign with Illinois over the Minnesota Golden Gophers was a huge win for Tim Beckman’s 2015 recruiting class, which at the time seemed like the foundation for a solid program. Unfortunately, that 2015 class never played a snap for Beckman, and many left in the turmoil. Several others, such as Reggie Corbin, were buried on the bench as underclassmen. The 2015 Illini had a solid defense, but Milan redshirted that season and spent the rest of his career trying to propel the Illini defense back to that standard.
Milan’s commitment to Illinois was a moment of so much promise for Illini football, and though it’s taken a long and winding route with bizarre twists and turns, that promise has finally blossomed into a winning football team anchored by the immovable wall that is Jamal Milan, the best defensive tackle to don the Orange and Blue since Corey Liuget.
Enjoy the bye week, big guy.